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May 28, 2009


Egorin wins ASCO award

Merrill Egorin, professor of medicine and pharmacology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI), has received the 2009 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Translational Research Professorship for his work in improving cancer treatments and supporting the next generation of researchers.

The award provides $100,000 annually for five years to further the training and career development of clinical oncologists for whom translational research is the primary or major component of their professional activities.

“I am tremendously honored to receive this wonderful award, which truly encourages bench-to-bedside research,” said Egorin. “I’ve dedicated my career to pursuing translational research and having my efforts recognized by ASCO is both humbling and inspiring.”

Nancy E. Davidson, director of UPCI and UPMC Cancer Centers, said, “This award acknowledges Dr. Egorin’s lifelong dedication to improving cancer treatments and rewards his ongoing and passionate commitment to mentoring the next generation of researcher. One of the most important responsibilities for accomplished researchers is the nurturing and support of junior investigators, and no one has been more engaged in this process than Dr. Egorin.”

Egorin will use the professorship to continue his pre-clinical and clinical studies of inhibitors of the PARP family of enzymes and how they can be exploited as targets for cancer therapies. PARP enzymes are responsible for a variety of cellular processes, including gene regulation, replication and the maintenance of genomic stability.  

Egorin will receive his award May 31.


Low vitamin D linked to BV

Pregnant women with low vitamin D levels may be more likely to suffer from bacterial vaginosis (BV) — a common vaginal infection that increases a woman’s risk for preterm delivery, according to a Pitt study that appears in the June issue of The Journal of Nutrition.

The research may explain why African-American women, who often lack adequate vitamin D, are three times more likely than white women to develop BV.

Lisa M. Bodnar, professor of epidemiology, obstetrics and gynecology, said, “Bacterial vaginosis affects nearly one in three reproductive-aged women, so there is great need to understand how it can be prevented. It is not only associated with a number of gynecologic conditions, but also may contribute to premature delivery — the leading cause of neonatal mortality — making it of particular concern to pregnant women.”

Bodnar and colleagues at Magee-Womens Research Institute (MWRI) found that 41 percent of the 469 pregnant women who participated in the study had BV. Of these, 93 percent had insufficient levels of vitamin D. They also found that the prevalence of BV decreased as vitamin D levels rose.

Vitamin D may play a role in BV by regulating the production and function of antimicrobial molecules, which in turn may help the immune system prevent and control bacterial infection. However, only about one in four Americans gets enough vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency may be more common in African Americans because dark pigmentation limits the amount of vitamin D that can be made in the skin through casual exposure to sunlight. African-American women also are less likely to meet dietary recommendations for vitamin D.

“Although this is a preliminary study, it points out an interesting connection between vitamin D and BV,” said Bodnar. “We don’t recommend pregnant women take mega-doses of vitamin D based on these findings, but they should talk with their doctor if they have concerns about their vitamin D status. All women should be encouraged to eat a healthy diet and take a prenatal vitamin before they become pregnant or as soon as they find out they are pregnant.”

Co-authors of the study include Marijane A. Krohn and Hyagriv N. Simhan of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences and MWRI.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health. It is available online at


Support needed to aid intimate partner violence victims

Health professionals are required to provide help for victims of intimate partner violence (IPV), yet many do not even discuss the issue with their patients, according to a Pitt study in the current issue of Violence and Victims.   

Led by Judy C. Chang, professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences and gynecologist at Magee-Womens Hospital, the study found that when health care professionals have the support of their clinical institution, they feel competent and are more willing to help women experiencing IPV.

“Without such support, health care providers are less comfortable in their ability to address this issue with their patients,” Chang said.

“Time limitations are a major barrier to treating patients experiencing IPV,” said Chang. “Hectic schedules and the need to perform multiple tasks do not allow health care workers adequate time to counsel and educate patients about this topic.”

The study included focus groups and individual interviews with health care providers from a western Pennsylvania ob-gyn clinic serving a low-income population and a general medicine clinic serving patients from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.

All participants said they felt a responsibility to help female victims of abuse but felt they needed more resources, time, IPV-focused training and system support.

“The findings of this study indicate that even when health care professionals recognize a responsibility and a role in dealing with abused women, support, resources and information are necessary to respond appropriately. The varying confidence levels between the groups also may be related to the different specialties,” said Chang. “An ob-gyn clinic provides care to women only, while a general medicine facility — even one with a women’s health focus — is responsible for both women and men.”

Study participants agreed that after identifying a patient experiencing IPV, it would be helpful to work as a team to provide appropriate information, resources, referrals and/or counseling.

Study co-authors include Raquel Buranosky and Melissa McNeil of medicine and Patricia Cluss of psychiatry.


Neuroscience grants awarded

The Department of Neuroscience recently announced two grants to faculty members:

• Linda Rinaman has been awarded a $335,000 National Institute of Mental Health grant for “Early Life Experience Shapes Visceral Circuits.” The five-year research project will examine the interactions between infants and their mother (or primary caregiver) critical for normal growth and development, and perturbations that can disrupt physiological and behavioral functions in the offspring.

The proposed research will use anatomical and physiological methods in rats to test the hypothesis that the influence of early life events on later responses to stress and emotional events is linked to developmental plasticity of circuits that provide visceral sensory feedback to the brain and generate emotional expression.

• J. Patrick Card has been awarded a four-year grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute for “C1, Rostroventrolateral Medulla and the Central Integration of Cardiovascular Regulation.” Card is collaborating with department chair Alan Sved on the project, which looks at a distributed network of neurons in the central nervous system known to exert a regulatory influence over cardiovascular function and malfunction of the network that can produce hypertension.

Hypertension is a major risk factor for the development of cardiovascular disease, but the way in which neuronal activity is coordinated within the central cardiovascular network is not known. This proposal tests the hypothesis that collateralized projections of C1 catecholamine neurons in the rostroventrolateral medulla provides the neural substrate for this integration.


Maternity hospitals need better flu planning

Pregnant women and newborns are at greatest risk in a flu epidemic, but more planning must be done to ensure that they receive priority treatment should an outbreak occur, according to a Pitt-UPMC study published online in Emerging Health Threats Journal.

The study raised concerns about the ability of hospitals to treat this vulnerable population adequately, particularly in light of the current H1N1 flu outbreak.

“Although it is not clear how well modern medicine will be able to prevent devastation during a large-scale infectious disease outbreak, it is widely recognized that advance planning may lessen the negative impact,” said study author Richard Beigi, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences. “This is especially important for pregnant women, fetuses and neonates, all of whom are often left out of national-level consideration.”

The study was based on an Internet survey of the 12-member Council of Women’s and Infants’ Specialty Hospitals, a national organization of non-profits that share information and operational data to improve maternity and newborn care.

“A major concern we found was how to ethically ration limited medical resources when faced with too many patients and not enough medical supplies and personnel,” said Beigi. “Although 56 percent of hospitals report that they have begun to address this issue, none have any formal plan yet in place. Another complicating factor is that despite the likelihood that this population will have an increased susceptibility to influenza during a pandemic, little data exist on the safety of vaccines and treatments to combat infectious disease in pregnant women and newborns.”

The encouraging news is that 78 percent of the hospitals that responded have formal written plans in place to address communications, a surge in patient volume and possible degradation of non-essential medical services. All facilities planned to provide care to their own employees despite the potential for significant shortages of both personnel and supplies, and 56 percent of the hospitals planned to provide augmented day-care services for employees’ children to help workers continue to work.

An additional area of concern is coordination with local, state and federal public health agencies. Many hospitals, particularly private ones, are uncertain how they would interact with public health agencies.

Public health agencies will play a critical role in providing information, medications and vaccine dissemination since they will be supplied by the federal strategic stockpile and may have the most accurate information as a pandemic unfolds, Beigi reported.

Although it is difficult to predict when the next influenza pandemic will occur, large-scale outbreaks have been reported every 10 to 40 years. The emergence of H5N1 avian influenza in 1997 and the fact that nearly 40 years have passed since the last outbreak makes the threat of a severe pandemic a realistic possibility in the near future.

“Many challenges remain if we are to improve on our efforts to optimize outcomes for pregnant women and newborns during the next influenza pandemic,” Beigi said. “It is hoped that this study will stimulate planning efforts for all hospitals providing maternity care in preparation for this apparently inevitable infectious disease outbreak.”

Aletha Akers, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences, was among the study’s co-authors.


Teen hookah use studied

After cigarettes and cigars, hookah smoking is the third most common source of tobacco use among Arizona middle school and high school students, according to a Pitt study published in the journal Pediatrics.

Lead author Brian Primack, professor of medicine and pediatrics, said, “While there has been research into hookah smoking among college students, until now there has been little information concerning how common it is among U.S. middle and high school students. We studied Arizona because it was the first state to rigorously assess this behavior statewide in its 2005 Youth Tobacco Survey. We hypothesize that other states will have similar rates.”

A hookah, also known as a waterpipe or narghile, is used to inhale tobacco that usually is flavored and sweetened. The opening of more than 200 hookah cafés in the U.S. over the past decade demonstrates the increasing popularity of hookah smoking. Although the aesthetic appeal of the practice suggests that it is not harmful, studies show that hookah tobacco smoke contains many of the same toxins as cigarettes and is associated with substantial harm and addictiveness.

Pitt researchers found hookah smoking was more common than smokeless tobacco, pipes, bidis, or kreteks (clove cigarettes). The practice increased with each grade level. Among middle school students, 2.1 percent said they had smoked from a hookah, but 10.3 percent of all high school students and 15.1 percent of high school seniors reported having done so.

Overall, 6.4 percent of Arizona students in grades 6-12 have smoked tobacco from a hookah, with 55 percent of those users reporting they had done so in the 30 days prior to the survey, researchers found.

Males reported more frequent use than females, and those who reported no plans to attend college were more likely to have smoked from a hookah than their college-bound counterparts.

“Many people consider hookah smoking an isolated fad among certain types of college students. However, this study suggests we should be carefully tracking use of this type of tobacco in national surveys and developing educational programs to inform young people of the risks,” said Primack.

Cindy Bryce of medicine was among the co-authors of the study.


The University Times Research Notes column reports on funding awarded to Pitt researchers as well as findings arising from University research.

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